Curious Centennial Woods

Burlington is Vermont’s largest city; the last census reported around 42,000 people making their home within the city’s 16 square miles. And anyone who knows Burlington would agree its an interesting city, with a diverse history adding to the layers that form the design and the architecture of the big picture. But even among the urbanization, there are still untapped places that can offer a rare glimpse of mystery and perspective that have managed to survive.

Centennial Woods is 65 acres of oddly wild land sitting in the middle of Vermont’s largest metropolitan area, and a lot of people don’t realize it even exists. With a discrete entrance located off a side street under the shadow of Fletcher Allen’s herculean edifice, the park is only marked by a small green sign that is almost lost among the environment around it. And once you find one of the trail heads, you find yourself in another world entirely that strangely coexists within such a vulnerable area- its secrets inhabit the influence of the city.

At the entrance to Centennial Woods lies something that doesn’t fit in with the gentle charm of the woods. A sight among the sites, you suddenly get an odd sinking feeling when the brutal military-esque form of a crumbling concrete bunker emerge from a steep hillside, its graffiti offering ambiguous messages from others who have visited.

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So what is it? The ruins of some sort of military installation? Some sort of early agricultural attempt to tame the steep hillside around it? Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be any answers, and any information about it just doesn’t seem to exist. But there are theories. Some say that these ruins were once built by the legendary Green Mountain Boys for training exercises. However, that seems far fetched, as concrete wasn’t wildy used in construction projects until the post civil war era. Others say that this might have been part of some sort of unusual surveying attempts along the Burlington/South Burlington city line, which runs right through the middle of the woods. And another more mysterious theory is that this is the last remnant of a series of monuments that once were scattered throughout the woods. But if so, than a monument to what?

The answers seemed to be somewhere in the smoke, and until they choose to reveal themselves, we’ll be waiting to pick at those pieces.

There was a strange indented area in front of the “bunker”, indicating that there was once more to this arcane structure.

There was a strange indented area in front of the “bunker”, indicating that there was once more to this arcane structure.

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The “bunker” didn’t seem to extend back that far. Any indication of a former entrance had long faded away, lost to memory.

The “bunker” didn’t seem to extend back that far. Any indication of a former entrance had long faded away, lost to memory.

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Just down the trail from these sturdy ruins sits a cool artifact on the forest floor, something small enough where you can easily trip over it if you aren’t careful; a city boundary survey marker.  It’s erosion and cracked surface showed the plaque’s age, especially compared to its newer street sign replacements located further down the trail. “City of Burlin – C.B. 40” could be barely made out through its erosion and faded youth.

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some rather interesting “trail art” – the tangled barbed wire quite possibly a vestige of the areas agricultural past, now acting as abstract art, or the victim of an act of boredom.

some rather interesting “trail art” – the tangled barbed wire quite possibly a vestige of the areas agricultural past, now acting as abstract art, or the victim of an act of boredom.

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Centennial Woods is a surprising hilly area, which is practically unknown unless your familiar with the topography here. It’s rocky ledges and serpentine marshlands hold another set of peculiar yet unmemorable set of ruins;  a series of badly burned stumps, a rusted machine gear and a beaten utility pole. Though the casual hiker would probably never guess it; these are the remains of the former South Burlington Kiwanis Ski Area. It opened sometime in the winter of 1963 and offered a 500 foot rope tow and lighted ski trails. However, the ski hill fell victim to arsonists in June of 1967 – the fire destroying the rope tow, tow shack and machinery. The rest was looted by vandals, and all have been left abandoned and forgotten as mother nature reclaimed it. The burned foundation of the former tow shack still can be seen in the new growth forest, more then 40 years later.

The charred and worn remains of the former tow shack

The charred and worn remains of the former tow shack

the former utility pole that powered the ski hill, now also abandoned and defunct.

the former utility pole that powered the ski hill, now also abandoned and defunct.

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the complete set of ruins

the complete set of ruins

Any attempts to find the remains of the ski trail would be impossible, the area has grown wild and indistinguishable

Any attempts to find the remains of the ski trail would be impossible, the area has grown wild and indistinguishable

Walking down the hill behind the former tow shack made me understand immediately why this site was chosen. The woods suddenly descend a very steep slope that makes its way down to a thick swamp along the fringes of Interstate 89, the flash and blur of traffic seems like a dream through the soft spring canopy. To my surprise, the hill had found new life and has been resurrected by another group of people looking for an adrenaline rush; mountain bikers. The steep and sandy slope had been carved into a series of dirt jumps with incredible elevation drops in between them, nothing for the faint of heart.

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These jumps had a steep and not at all dangerous drop down towards the interstate.

These jumps had a steep and not at all dangerous drop down towards the interstate.

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And I felt a change coming up as the skies grew dark – and there were apple blossoms in the air. Centennial Woods is a wonderful place to get lost for a while underneath the red maples, taking the woods in before you take them home. Besides a single passing hiker, I had the entire area to myself for 3 hours. It’s amusing to think about how much of an influence these woods have had in the 2 cities they grow in, told only fleetingly by the things they’ve left behind. The families that frequented the ski slopes near the interstate, the mysterious people who built the concrete ruins on the hill, The Green Mountain Boys and the farmers who may have once cultivated the land – there’s a connection here that is now linked by the isolation and the wilderness as it continuously changes the landscape. And if the woods bleed all their stories out, then what would be left for them to take to their grave?

How to get here:

Centennial Woods can be found off Carrigan Drive in Burlington – a side street off East Avenue. Click here for a map.

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2 Comments on “Curious Centennial Woods

  1. Wow. Been there many times on dog walks and never knew it was once a ski trail. Very cool!
    It’s really a gem in the midst of the big city of Burlington!

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